Reports Jan 1, 2021 | 11:33 AMby Colin McGourty

Airthings Masters SF1: Radjabov & Aronian strike

We’re currently on course for a Radjabov-Aronian final in the Airthings Masters after Teimour Radjabov and Levon Aronian won the first sets of their semi-finals. Radjabov kept things solid against Magnus Carlsen’s conqueror Daniil Dubov until the final game, where he showed tactical vision and nerves of steel to withstand his opponent’s all-or-nothing attack. Levon Aronian’s brilliant form from beating Hikaru Nakamura in the quarterfinals continued as he defeated MVL 3:1, despite blundering a full piece in the final game.

Levon Aronian didn't try to pretend he'd deliberately blundered a piece to get the draw he needed against MVL!

You can replay all the Airthings Masters knockout games using the selector below.

And here’s the day’s live commentary from Peter Leko and Tania Sachdev.

And Kaja Snare, Jovanka Houska and David Howell.

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2020 is a year that will go down in infamy, but there have been bright spots, as we saw with the tense and exciting chess on the final day of the year. As Magnus Carlsen commented on the online revolution:

I think it’s been great the way chess has been adapted and I think when better times arrive, when we can travel a bit more freely, there are less restrictions and so on, I’m still very happy that we’ve established this tour and some serious tournaments are happening online, because that’s only going to massively enrich the world of chess and take it to the next level.

But let’s get to the matches.

Radjabov 3:1 Dubov

The recipe for beating the incredibly dangerous young Russian player Daniil Dubov seems clear, just must easier said than done. Take him into dull, technical positions and then seize any chance to snatch a full point.

Magnus Carlsen didn’t manage that in the quarterfinals, but Teimour Radjabov did a much better job. He had some pressure with White in a 63-move first game, was perhaps seriously better when he took a 35-move draw by repetition with Black in the second, and then broke through in the third game. Teimour launched a “minority attack” on the queenside, where his b-pawn inflicted a weak backward pawn on c6 on Dubov. He then methodically manoeuvred his pieces to attack the pawn until 39.Ne5! left it defenceless.

Daniil went for 39…c5, but after 40.Qxd6 Bxd6 41.Nxd5 was simply a pawn down in the endgame. The conversion that followed was anything but flawless, and Daniil had chances to escape, but after 71…Be5 the final stage of the game began.

72.Nxf6! regained an extra pawn (72…Bxf6 73.Rd6+ wins a piece) and this time Teimour made no mistake.

That meant Daniil now needed to win on demand in the final game, and this was more like it! On move 22 he acted in accordance with the “never retreat, never surrender” approach he often employs with the white pieces.

23.Nxf6!?? was objectively not a great move but, as we saw against Magnus the day before, it’s always difficult to play against aggressive moves that have at least some concrete ideas behind them. 23…Rxf6 24.Rxd6 Rxf5!? (24…Rxd6 25.Rxd6 Qc8! turns out to be fine for Black) 25.Rxc6 Rxf2+! 26.Kxf2 Qxc6 was already only an equal, unbalanced position, and more importantly Dubov had drawn his opponent into time trouble. 

Teimour made the move 32…Qg6! with just 1 second remaining on his clock (after each move the players gain an extra 10 seconds).

Dubov had two and a half minutes to try and complicate his opponent’s life, but Teimour played this phase expertly, finding some brilliant resources. The move 36…Bg5!! was again played with 1 second to spare.

The bishop cuts communication between the white queen and h4-pawn, making Qxh4# a killer threat. There was nothing better than to stop that with 37.Qxg5, but that meant 37…e1=Q could now be played and Black had won an exchange. Radjabov made no mistake in the play that followed as he clinched a 3:1 victory in the first set.

Aronian 3:1 MVL

Levon Aronian followed up two wins the day before against Hikaru Nakamura by winning his first game against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. The French no. 1 is renowned as the one top player who regularly topples the super-solid Berlin Wall endgame, but on this occasion he got a little carried away, putting knights on g5 and b5 and then grabbing a pawn on a7.

After 27…c6 there was no easy way back for the knight, and in fact 8 moves later Maxime sacrificed it for the c6-pawn before the black king got the chance to gobble it up. Levon comfortably converted his extra piece.

Levon came incredibly close to winning a 4th rapid game in a row and all but clinching the day’s set in the next game, but Maxime’s 33…Be7?! proved to have great value in confusing Levon, who was down to 22 seconds compared to his opponent’s 6 minutes.

Levon played 34.Rxf7?, which would have been a good move against e.g. 33…Bg7, but after 34…Bc5 35.Qxc5!? Qxc5+ 36.Rf2 the game fizzled out into a draw. Instead 34.Be5, as suggested by Peter Leko, was strong, but even stronger was 34.Rxd5!, when after 34…exd5 35.Qe6! the computer announces mate-in-10.

The 3rd game was also drawn, though this time with Maxime the player pressing. That meant it all came down to a must-win game for Maxime. Although the Frenchman got the complications he needed, they favoured Levon, who found himself with a position that was both winning and very comfortable. But then, just when Peter Leko was pointing out a possible blunder, Levon went and did it with 41.Qxc6?

He’d lost a full piece, though he said he wasn’t surprised by his mistake: “I thought to myself, well, this had to come at some point!”

The surprise, however, was that when the dust had settled Levon was down a piece but had two pawns, an active king and in some ways the perfect simplified position for his match situation. “Fortunately I had some play – maybe it was a practical blunder!” he commented.

In what followed Levon in fact reached a winning position again, but he was more than happy to take the draw that takes him into the New Year with the lead against Maxime.

So that means that on New Year’s Day both Daniil Dubov and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave must win the second 4-game mini-match to force a playoff for a place in the final. Whatever happens, everything will be decided today.

Follow all the semi-final action live here on chess24!

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